From afar, it was GP2 Series veterans Davide Valsecchi and Luiz Razia who were the top performers in the Formula 1 feeder category in 2012. But to anyone who kept half an eye on the championship for the duration of the year, it was British rookie James Calado who was the real star.
Ahead of his assault on the 2013 title, the 23-year-old from Worcestershire spoke to TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk about his 2012 campaign and the year to come.
Calado had finished runner-up in the supporting GP3 Series in 2011 behind then-teammate Valtteri Bottas and was promoted by the Lotus GP team into GP2 for 2012. Even though he’d won on his debut in the category at the non-championship race in Abu Dhabi in late 2011, things were not going to be easy against drivers in their fourth or fifth seasons and with races at circuits like Sepang and Bahrain where he had not raced before.
Another win came at that first weekend in Malaysia though, followed by pole positions in Barcelona and Valencia and a second victory at Hockenheim. With two weekends to run he was third in the standings with an outside shot of the title, but car issues in Monza and illness in Singapore saw him slip to fifth in the final points.
“I went into the start of the season knowing it would not be easy due mainly to the lack of testing at the new tracks,” said Calado. “It was a good season with race wins, podiums, pole positions and fastest laps. Up until the last round I was ahead of my team-mate and third in the championship.
“Potentially, without the electrical fault at Silverstone and the safety car situation at Valencia I could have been fighting for the win. As a racing driver I always expect to win races and even though it was a good year, naturally I was very disappointed to finish fifth.”
With GP2 budgets amounting somewhere in the region of two million pounds, the junior ranks on the path to F1 are prohibitively expensive. Calado is fortunate enough to receive backing from the Racing Steps Foundation, which was set up specifically to help underfunded but talented British drivers like him.
“The Racing Steps Foundation has been crucial to my success,” he says. “They provide all the funding for my racing and everything else that’s required to make me a complete and competitive driver.”
Some of Britain’s most talented drivers are supported by the organisation, with British F3 champion Jack Harvey and McLaren Autosport BRDC Award winners Oliver Rowland and Jake Dennis also in the ranks. None would be in a position to ascend the ladder towards F1 without the help of RSF.
“In short, the Foundation makes sure I am well looked after in every respect by the all the right experts,” Calado says. “We are in the most competitive environment possible. The Foundation puts all the drivers in the best teams and we are expected to win races and championships.
“Without Graham Sharp (the founder), Derek Walters (the chief organiser) and everyone else involved I can assure you that I wouldn’t be racing now.”
In recent years the RSF has developed a strong relationship with the French team ART Grand Prix – currently competing as Lotus GP – which took the likes of Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Hulkenberg to titles in GP2 and F3 and could count nearly half of 2013’s F1 grid amongst its alumni. This year will be Calado’s third driving for the squad run by Frederic Vassuer and Nicolas Todt
“ART are by far the best bunch of people I have worked with,” says Calado, who previously raced for top British outfits Fortec and Carlin in Formula Renault 2.0 and British F3 respectively.
“They are extremely professional, very analytical about their testing programmes and work in a way which suits me extremely well. Everything within the team is always immaculate and extremely clean. We all have a great relationship and 2013 will be my third year with the team.
“Fred Vasseur has great connections and I always feel very privileged to drive for the team. It’s an extremely fair and thoroughly professional environment in which to work. There are no politics, it’s just down to the drivers and engineers to do the best job possible and get the right results.”
Last year at Lotus his teammate was Esteban Gutierrez, who, together with Bottas, will make his F1 debut next year. Calado had the upper hand on the Mexican for much of last season despite his lack of experience.
“Esteban is a great friend and a talented driver,” said Calado. “He has the money behind him to get into F1. I wish him well.”
Following Gutierrez’s graduation into F1, Calado will have a new teammate this year in the shape of Daniel Abt. The German follows in the footsteps of Calado by moving up to GP2 after finishing runner-up in GP3 last year. Having both been part of the ART stable last year, the two drivers know each other well.
“Daniel did fantastically well in GP3,” said Calado. “He is also a talented driver. He is quick and I’m looking forward to working with him. I know how hard it is as a rookie but I am sure he will be fighting for race wins. He will provide valuable data, which is very important.”
While past teammates Gutierrez, Bottas and Jean-Eric Vergne look to make their mark in F1 this year, Calado is yet to drive an F1 car. His 2012 drives in front of the F1 paddock cannot have gone unnoticed though.
“My performances, from what I hear, have been recognised by individuals involved within F1 teams,” he said. “This is good to know and gives me confidence for the future. I have no involvement with any teams yet, as you said I’ve yet to drive an F1 car.
“I really wanted to do the young driver test in 2012 but unfortunately, for some reason, it just didn’t happen. It was upsetting not having the chance but my priority this year is to concentrate on winning the GP2 championship.
“F1 has always been a dream but, for now, it’s down to me to win the championship this year. That’s my priority. Then I need to be lucky enough for someone to provide the bag of gold that may be needed as well. I suppose without that I may never make it.”
Without money to offer to potential suitors, Calado’s F1 hopes rest upon using success in GP2 as a springboard. Rival series Formula Renault 3.5 is a cheaper alternative to GP2 and consequently had a competitive field last year, but Calado remains convinced that GP2 is the place to be.
“I believe that GP2 is the best series to compete in if I want to make it to F1. It’s the closest car to F1 and we use almost identical tyres. We are within an F1 environment and we use the same tracks.”
If he’s to persuade F1 teams to take him on without bringing any financial backing, Calado knows he needs to build upon 2012 and win the GP2 title this year – and in convincing style.
“GP2 is a very competitive series and is always extremely tough,” he says. “That aside, I expect to be champion and win as many races as I can. I now have the experience as well as the speed and am working with ART. So I’m really looking forward to getting started.”
The pressure is certainly on but if he delivers, Calado will become the second British champion in GP2 after Lewis Hamilton’s success in 2006. And the hope is that he will join Hamilton and the rest in the big league in 2014, where he belongs.